by Ambassador Anil Trigunayat
Amidst the regional developments in West Asia and fast evolving situation in Afghanistan the world attention only veered in that direction. However, North Africa kept driving on with various rather difficult situations. Tunisia – the fountain of Arab Spring 1.0 saw the dissolution of the government and Parliament by President Kais Saied assuming all powers and even threatening to draft a new constitution. The ground situation remains delicate and disenchanting for the ordinary people whose plight continues to worsen. Libya continues to struggle for some normalcy and is struggling hard with the possibility of general elections in December that might lead to a political transition and hopefully better days ahead. But suffering of the people has not only been predicated on the whims of politicians and ex-military leaders but also on the unbridled sway of powerful militias, mercenaries and non-State actors who are well embedded in the designs of nearly all international and regional powers- whose lip sympathy surely destabilises the Libyan hopes even more.
Algeria – the largest country in Africa by area, got afflicted by the second wave of the Arab Spring when nearly two years ago the disenchanted Algerians took to the street and eventually deposed the ailing strong man Bouteflika ignominiously, who succumbed to his illness only yesterday. In 2001, he was the Chief Guest at the Indian Republic Day celebrations , which is a distinct honour to a more than friendly nation. Some semblance of political stability and democratic transition is enroute in this North African country which gallantly fought against the extremist and terrorist groups and ideologies and has even suffered from those coming in from the porous borders from Libya. It does play a significant regional role in the Maghreb. But it does have problems on Western Sahara with its western neighbour Morocco. Rabat had recently normalised relations with Tel Aviv within the contours of Abraham Accords and also fielded an observer status for Israel at the African union (AU) . This caused a deeper rift between the two large and important countries. Algeria, accusing Morocco of fomenting support to extremist groups like MAK(Movement for Self-determination of Kabylie) and alleged “ hostile actions’ , severed diplomatic ties with it last month (August 24). Algeria supports the Polisario movement for independence of Western Sahara which Trump declared as being under the territorial jurisdiction of Morocco.
Algeria, according to Wikipedia, has the highest Human Development Index of all non-island African countries and one of the largest economies on the continent, based largely on energy exports. Algeria has the world’s sixteenth-largest oil reserves and the ninth-largest reserves of natural gas. Sonatrach, the national oil company, is the largest company in Africa, supplying large amounts of natural gas to Europe. Algeria’s military is one of the largest in Africa.
India had a close relationship with Algeria way before its independence in 1962 when the diplomatic relationship was established. New Delhi supported and even hosted the Algerian Independence Movement represented by National Liberation Front (NLF). High level visits and exchanges have regularly taken place in bilateral domain and the NAM context. Economic engagement has sustained but has not crossed the threshold and remains below potential. The trade levels of $1.39 bn during 20-21 may not be illustrative due to impact of Covid but do attest that much remains to be done .Intentions need to be converted into focussed actions. Several major Indian companies have undertaken various infrastructural projects in power, construction, oil & gas and ICT, automotive and pharma sectors including several EPC projects . Algerian Sonatrach signed a $1 billion contract with India’s Larsen & Toubro to build plants to produce 11 million cubic metres of gas per day. In the agri and auto sectors, Mahindra & Mahindra have reportedly signed a deal establishing a JV to manufacture and assemble tractors in the Tizi Ouzou province .During the pandemic also the collaboration and assistance from India in the area of covid vaccine procurement has gone apace and highly appreciated
Recently India downgraded its defence relationship with Algeria when the two sides conducted first ever joint naval exercises (August 29) to enhance maritime cooperation. Stealth ship INS Tabar represented India along with Algerian naval ship ANS Ezager conducted the drills off the coast of Algeria. The exchanges and training of defence personnel has been a regular feature. Incidentally, prior to that ( August 25-26) INS Tabar, as part of her overseas deployment, made a port call at Casablanca in Morocco. INS Tabar participated in a Maritime Partnership Exercise with ‘Lieutenant Colonel Arrahman’ Royal Moroccan Navy ship, off Casablanca port. India obviously would prefer better relations between Algiers and Rabat especially within its efforts to strengthen Maritime Domain Awareness network in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR).
Another important area of cooperation with Algeria has been in the domain of space . The two sides not only had signed an agreement for cooperation in 2018 incorporating collaboration in S&T and Space applications but India also launched several Algerian Al Sat series of satellites but has also helped in capacity building and trained their engineers practically at the launch and other phases. Counter Terrorism could be another significant area for cooperation.
It was precisely for providing a fresh impetus and direction to the bilateral relations and to secure regional assessments Minister of State (MoS) for External Affairs V Muraleedharan visited Algeria from September 15 -17, 2021. During the visit, he called on Aimene Benabderrahmane, Prime Minister of Algeria and held discussions on a range of bilateral, regional and international issues of mutual interest. MoS had fruitful discussions with Ramtane Lamamra, Foreign Minister and Minister of National Community Abroad and Rashid Chakib Kaib, Secretary General in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It was agreed to hold the 10th round of India-Algeria Joint Commission Meeting at an early date. During the meetings with Minister of Trade and Export Promotion Kamel Rezig and Minister of Energy and Mines Arkab Mohamedas both sides agreed to focus more on energy , chemicals and fertilizers sectors. Expressing his satisfaction at the outcomes MoS tweeted “Discussed on expanding ties in petrochemical industries, Indian investments in Algerian phosphate, mining and enhancing technology transfer in the industrial sector.”
Going looks good but follow up is equally important from both sides. At the end of the day the taste of the pudding is in eating.
(The author is Former Ambassador of India to Jordan, Libya and Malta. Currently he is President, MIICCIA Chamber of Commerce. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)